Missing Money at the Landfill is Just Part of the Trashy Way City Hall Handles Your Money
Hey, before the moment passes, let's make sure we know exactly what was at stake in Scott Griggs' remarks about the dump last Monday morning. City Council member Griggs called out city staff on the question of exactly how much money really gets stolen every year by city employees at the landfill.
He said he thought the city auditor's recent estimate of $1.1 million over an 11-year period was "extremely conservative." First of all, he was not using "conservative" in the meaning that applies to Newt Gingrich. It's "conservative" as in, "You gotta be kidding me." As in, "They probably stole that much money every month."
Griggs is a lawyer who, in addition to serving on the City Council, also has daily experience in what I like to call "The Real World." Looking at everything else the auditor said about the total absence of control over the money at the city's huge landfill operation, he came to a certain real-world conclusion: "The shop was so poorly run and mismanaged," Griggs said, "that we don't even have enough information available to go back and accurately determine how much the loss is."
Just another day at work at City Hall.
Here is how that works. You have a drawer with 10 million bucks in it. After a while, everybody in the shop figures out that no one ever counts the money in that drawer. And nobody watches who goes in and out of it.
Most employees are honest, so the drawer poses no temptation. But you always have at least one employee, whom we shall call him Larson Aloysius Uss (never uses the middle name), and maybe he's got a job-site romance going strong, with the fetching lady whom we shall call Emma Bezzler.
So Larson Uss and Emma Bezzler look in the drawer containing 10 million bucks in free money, and they must make a decision. Which would be better? $1.1 million over 11 years? $5.1 million over one year? Or $10 million in two minutes.
The problem with the first two choices is that they take too long. Also, neither one will generate sufficient funds for both the island and the yacht, and here's the deal with that: The one is no good without the other. It's arithmetic, really.
What Griggs was pointing out Monday is that City Hall runs on a system that allows people to steal large sums of money. Therefore it is unlikely that people who are so inclined have been limiting themselves to smaller amounts of money.
Is it because this is about the dump? And, you know, it's the dump? So trashy stuff happens there? Please. This whole thing is merely a window on the basic underlying fiscal policy of Dallas City Hall.
I wonder if you remember a little incident we told you about six years ago in which the city manager admitted to us that she had kind of fooled the voters to the tune of $73 million for the Trinity River Project? What? You were in middle school then? Well, there you have it. How could you have known? I was already in Memory Therapy School, so I do remember. I won't go back through the whole thing. City Manager Mary Suhm had sworn up one side and down the other to voters for years that the maximum amount Dallas taxpayers would ever have to pay for the river project was the $246 million they had authorized in a bond election in 1998.
So we were kind of shooting the breeze up there at City Hall one day, going over some numbers for the project, and Suhm admitted to me that she had slipped $73 million additional for the project onto a later bond issue without explicitly telling anybody it was for the Trinity River Project.
What we have here is a certain attitude toward money. And let me be plain. I am not accusing the city manager of stealing any money. She is a fine and honorable person who has served the city diligently. Really.
But money, once it has flowed into City Hall, is viewed as their money. It's the staff's money. The mentality is a consequence of the city manager system itself. Far from operating like a business, the way it's advertised, the city manager system operates more like a rich eccentric family. Once they get their hands on that dough, they don't believe it's anybody else's business what they do with it. Outsiders have such vulgar notions about money anyway. Only the staff has good taste.
The sloppy accounting issue is not an anomaly at the dump. It's a lifestyle. In an age when it would be simple for the city to put every penny of its finances up on the web where we could all see it in a couple of clicks, the city spends hundreds of thousands of dollars, maybe millions, going to court to fight the most basic requests for financial information. Then even when they lose the battle and must pony up the records, it's always a room full of battered cardboard boxes stuffed with crumpled un-indexed receipts.
Why? Because the best defense is shitty accounting. Cash drawers like that one at the dump go uncounted because counting only makes it easier for eyes to pry.
And how do they get away with that over the years? They get away with it because the city manager system itself is a buck-stops-nowhere system. Try to figure out whose fault anything is at City Hall. Everybody's a cowboy on the corral fence pointing different directions and saying, "They went that-a-way." Some people point with both hands in different directions and laugh at you while they do it.
If there were somebody at the top we could fire, it would all be different. But there isn't.
For questions of broad public policy, the city manager system is just really convenient for the city manager. For our friends, Larson Uss and Emma Bezzle, it's a whole other thing. For you and me, what are we allowed to say that any of them would actually listen to? Toot-toot and bon voyage.